- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Union leaders said Tuesday they have set aside differences to agree on a unified immigration overhaul plan they hope will win passage in Congress this year.

The proposal from labor federations AFL-CIO and Change to Win would create a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million immigrants now in the country illegally, but opposes any expansion of guest worker programs.

It was the clash over temporary workers that divided organized labor two years ago when Congress last considered immigration reform. The AFL-CIO then broke with several Change to Win unions in opposing a new guest worker program, arguing it would depress wages and allow immigrants to be exploited by employers.

“The division among us over temporary worker programs really was an impediment to moving forward a progressive agenda,” AFL-CIO associate general counsel Ana Avendano said.

In 2007, the immigration bill ultimately collapsed in the Senate after Republican conservatives denounced provisions that would have led to lawful status for many illegal immigrants. But Avendano said divisions within the union movement didn’t help matters.

The latest union initiative comes after President Barack Obama said recently that he wants to address immigration later this year.

The union plan calls for creation of an independent government commission to decide future immigration of temporary and permanent workers based on labor market needs. The commission would be required to examine the impact of immigration on the economy, wages, the work force and business.

“It goes to the question of how do we take employers, who are in many cases the bad actors in this, and have somebody make the decisions based on real needs rather than politics or economic gain,” said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, a member of Change to Win.

But many employers that rely on seasonal guest workers say they are frustrated with government limitations and need more help.

“We are skeptical of a commission actually being able to do a real time, up-to-date evaluation of the labor market because the labor market always moves ahead of government statistics,” said Randel Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president on labor issues.

Johnson called the union plan an excuse to oppose expanding temporary worker programs that many business leaders see as crucial for a recovering economy.

Union leaders said their plan has earned positive feedback from the White House as well as immigration advocacy and civil rights groups.

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